Secretary Bird, a rapacious bird of the genus serpentarius (Cuv.) or gypogeranus (111.). The bill is moderate, broad, elevated at the base, and the culmen much arched to the hooked tip; nostrils with large and oblique lateral opening; wings long, with the third, fourth, and fifth quills nearly equal and longest, armed on the wrist joint with an obtuse spur; tail very long and wedge-shaped, with the two middle feathers prolonged; tarsi much lengthened, slender, covered in front with transverse scales; toes very short, the anterior ones united at base by a membrane, the hind one rather elevated, and all covered above with transverse scales; claws nearly straight and blunt; the lores and space round the eyes naked. The best known species is the S. reptili-vorus (Daud.; gypogeranus serpentarius, 111.), about 3 ft. long, inhabiting the sandy plains of S. Africa; the general color is bluish gray, the quills, thighs, crest, and abdomen more or less marked with black; the throat and chest shaded with white, and lower tail coverts reddish; cere and naked parts yellow; it has a long erectile crest on the back of the head, looking when depressed like a pen behind a clerk's ear, whence the common name; it is also called serpent eater from its favorite food, and messenger from its long steps and rapid gait.
These birds are usually seen in pairs, and devour serpents and other reptiles; when attacking a serpent they approach with one wing extended and acting as a shield to the body, and with the other strike the reptile, wounding it with the wing spur, tossing it into the air, and safely wearying out the most venomous species; they also eat lizards, tortoises, rats, small birds, and large insects. They run and hop very swiftly; they are very voracious, Le Vaillant mentioning that he took from the crop of one 11 good-sized lizards, 3 serpents as long as his arm, 11 small tortoises ("many of which were about 2 in. in diameter"), and a number of insects. They are often introduced, partly domesticated, into poultry yards to rid them of rats, snakes, and other animals which devour young birds or eggs, and they rarely attack the fowls while supplied with reptiles and meat. The nest is made on trees, and is large, built of sticks and lined with wool and feathers; they lay two or three eggs. This bird in its long tarsi resembles the waders, and has been placed among them by Vieillot, and among the gallinoe with the bustard by others on account of the wing spurs, terrestrial habits, and some details of internal structure.
If a raptorial bird, as Nitzsch maintains, it comes nearer the vulture than the falcon family in the naked cheeks, loose plumage about the head, straightness and bluntness of the claws, and greater webs between the toes. A species is found in the Philippine islands, which is probably distinct from the African bird.
Secretary Bird (Serpentarius reptilivorus).